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With the commercial and critical success of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) in his back pocket, producer Hal Wallis teamed up again with one of the stars of that picture, Kirk Douglas (now owner of his own outfit, Bryna Productions), for a follow-up Western. Also returning from the O.K. scuffle were director John Sturges, cinematographer Charles Lang, composer Dimitri Tiomkin, art directors Hal Pereira and Walter Tyler, and editor Warren Low. The project was Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), a tense psychological Western based on an original story by television writer Les Crutchfield called Showdown, which was at one time a working title of the movie. Other titles under consideration were Last Train from Harper's Junction, Last Train from Laredo, One Angry Day, and Showdown at Gun Hill. According to a Daily Variety news item, Wallis purchased the story in March 1954 as a possible starring vehicle for Burt Lancaster or Charlton Heston.
But Douglas ended up in the lead role with second billing going to Anthony Quinn in his third film with Kirk. Quinn's last film with the dimpled chin, Lust for Life (1956), earned him an Oscar® for Best Supporting Actor. This was also Quinn's third film with character actor Earl Holliman. In addition to Last Train from Gun Hill, Holliman played Quinn's son in Hot Spell (1958). In an archival interview with TCM, Holliman recalled that "Tony (Quinn) once said to me...'if we play father and son again, I'm going to put you on an allowance.'"
Last Train from Gun Hill also features Carolyn Jones in a supporting role as an unexpected friend to Douglas' Marshall Morgan, who passes along little tokens of her friendship, like a loaded shotgun, for instance. Jones happens to be Quinn's long-suffering and possibly abused mistress, a woman who has lived a lifetime of being 'the other woman.' To a man who tries to pick her up in one scene, she responds, "I hadn't been lonesome since I was twelve years old."
Last Train from Gun Hill begins with the brutal rape and murder of a young Indian woman (Ziva Rodann) by two drunken cowthugs, Rick Belden (Holliman) and his loyal friend Lee Smithers (Brian G. Hutton). But the woman isn't alone; her young son witnesses the initial assault, and escapes on Holliman's horse. The little boy heads to town for his father, Marshal Matt Morgan (Douglas). The grief stricken Morgan vows to bring the killers to justice, and he finds just the way to do it when he correctly identifies the saddle on Holliman's horse as belonging to an old friend of his, Craig Belden (Quinn), a powerful cattleman who lives some distance away in a town called Gun Hill. Morgan and Belden have a history together and had been close friends at one time. They eventually went their separate ways but remained tight. When Douglas accuses Belden's son of rape and murder, however, their friendship is severely tested.
Director John Sturges had just completed The Old Man and the Sea (1958) and was on his way to big success with The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). As he did with almost every genre picture he made, he takes routine and formulaic material and turns it into something interesting and unique. For instance, the violence in Last Train from Gun Hill doesn't follow the clichs of the typical western with the obligatory shootouts. In one unexpected scene, Holliman's villainous character is shown handcuffed to a bed. After he sarcastically suggests Douglas stand close to the hotel window where Quinn's men stand ready to shoot him, Douglas viciously shoves Holliman, bed and all, right into the window to possibly receive Quinn's bullets instead. The threat of violence, in fact, pervades the movie and gives it an underlying tension particularly in the scenes where Douglas holds a shotgun under Holliman's chin or gives a methodical description of a public hanging. As for the tragic rape and murder of Douglas' wife that opens the film, it mostly takes place off screen but Sturges fashions it into a visually disturbing sequence that hangs over the entire movie and drives the narrative. There must been an even more explicit version of it at one point: An April 18, 1958 item in Hollywood Reporter 's "Rambling Reporter" column stated that for the European version of the film, Ziva Rodann, who played the murdered wife, would be "nude from the navel." (In the assault scene, Catherine's bare back is exposed, but the front of her body is not visible.)
Stylistically, Last Train from Gun Hill is a compelling contrast of widescreen vistas and silhouetted psychological turmoil. Sturges splashes his action across the VistaVision canvas, but keeps the camera low to the ground to heighten the expansive compositions, but also to convey a sense of unease and foreboding. To illustrate Quinn's inner turmoil, Sturges bathes him in shadow, often in profile. Yet Sturges isn't showy in his technique, using relatively simple camera movements and an editing style that doesn't call attention to itself. Even the climax avoids overstatement; instead of a melodramatic music cue by composer Dimitri Tiomkin, there's just the quiet crackling sounds of a building on fire, as all of Gun Hill awaits the final outcome of the inevitable showdown.
In its review Variety said that "Last Train from Gun Hill is a top western...a film that plays for almost pure action." But the reviewer singled out praise for the cinematography of Charles Lang, commenting, "Lang has one technique, opening on a background with a medium shot and then pulling back to bring in the scene's central character, that seems fresh and effective...None of this is conspicuously 'arty', but acts as an imperceptible aid in heightening tension and involvement."
Producer: Paul Nathan, Hal B. Wallis
Director: John Sturges
Screenplay: Les Crutchfield, James Poe
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Film Editing: Warren Low
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Kirk Douglas (Marshal Matt Morgan), Anthony Quinn (Craig Belden), Carolyn Jones (Linda), Earl Holliman (Rick Belden), Brad Dexter (Beero), Brian G. Hutton (Lee Smithers).
by Scott McGee